UH Hilo graduate student works to save critically endangered palila songbird on Maunakea

Alex Bischer is in the professional master’s internship track of the tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program at UH Hilo. His palila work is designed to prepare him to actively contribute as a scientist in environmental and conservation fields.

By Leah Sherwood.

Alex Bischer
Alex Bischer. Photo credit: Raiatea Arcuri for UH Hilo Stories.

Alex Bischer, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at the University of Hawai‘i Hilo, is collaborating with researchers from a state agency and a private organization to save the palila (Loxioides bailleui), a species of Hawaiian honeycreeper.

The songbirds were once found on Kaua‘i and O‘ahu, but are now confined to a small habitat on the upper slopes of Maunakea on the island of Hawai‘i, where they eat the seeds of the native māmane tree (Sophora chrysophylla). The palila is considered critically endangered, with fewer than 1,000 individual birds remaining in the wild.

Alex, out on slope of mountain, holds up tracking device.
Alex Bischer tracks released palila with radio telemetry. Photo credit: Koa Matsuoko.
Palila on tree branch. Bird has yellow head, white underside and gray back/wings. It's eating berries from the tree branch.
Palila (Loxioides bailleui). Source: USGS.

“One of the main drivers of their drop in numbers is the loss of habitat,” says Bischer. “The palila used to be found all over the subalpine habitat wherever you could find the māmane tree, which is their main food source. The māmane has seed pods and the palila is the only animal on the island that can actually eat the seeds in the pod, so they’re important for dispersing the seeds. But then sheep and other ungulates were introduced, and they eat everything they can reach, which means the trees can’t regenerate. You have a bunch of older māmane forests, but as those die off, there’s no regeneration, and that’s been shrinking their habitat.”

In May, Bischer joined a team of researchers at Pu‘u Mali for the release of six palila individuals that were hatched and raised at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center. San Diego Zoo Global operates the conservation center as part of the Hawai‘i Endangered Bird Conservation Program.

Alex at front of room giving talk about his work. Photo of palila on the screen.
Alex Bischer does a presentation about the palila release at Pu‘u Mali, 11th annual Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science Research Symposium, April, 12, 2019, UH Hilo. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories.

Bischer says the most challenging part of the conservation work is the constant hiking up the slopes of Maunakea as the research team tracks the released birds with radio telemetry. However, he enjoys the satisfaction of knowing that he is helping to restore an endangered bird population in Hawai‘i, which is currently a hot spot for research on endangered bird species.

“In September a paper was published that found that in the past 30 years or so we’ve lost a quarter of our bird population in the United States,” says Bischer. “So what we’re experiencing here in Hawai‘i is going to become relevant to the mainland and basically everywhere. Here in Hawai‘i we have a head start on the research.”

Alex in the forest with binoculars hanging around his neck, giving the shaka to the camera. To his left is a ribbon marker on tree.
Alex Bischer takes a break during palila surveys. Photo credit: Alex Wang.

Bischer is a student in the professional master’s internship track of the tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program. The track is designed to prepare graduates to actively contribute as scientists in environmental and conservation agencies, nonprofit organizations, and other institutions.

In Bischer’s case, an internship was arranged with the Natural Area Reserves System, an agency of the State of Hawaiʻi housed within the Division of Forestry and Wildlife at the Department of Land and Natural Resources. The reserve system works to preserve rare endemic plants and animals, many of which are on the edge of extinction, on 21 reserves across five islands.

Bischer was officially placed in the internship position over the summer but has stayed on this semester and will continue next semester to help out wherever needed, mostly with bird surveys.

Lisa Canale, the master’s program internship coordinator who helped arrange Bischer’s internship, credits him with working hard to make the most of the opportunity he was given. “The internship master’s program opens a door for graduate students, but it is up to the grad student to make the most of it,” says Canale. “Alex’s internship has opened up a world of other opportunities for him, from doing bird surveys from helicopters to being able to do the actual palila release.”

Bischer is being mentored by Alex Wang, an alumnus of the same UH Hilo graduate program who is now an endangered forest bird field supervisor for the Hawai‘i State Department of  Forestry and Wildlife. Wang says that participation in the internship program is a win-win both for Bischer and the reserve.

“The internship track is a great way to give real world experience to students interested in a career in Hawai‘i conservation,” says Wang. “Alex demonstrated a hard-work ethic. While assisting with our palila releases, he was able to obtain on-the-ground skills using radio-telemetry and animal husbandry, network within our conservation community to get his foot in the door with partner agencies, and greatly contribute to a project with a shoestring budget for which we are very grateful.”


Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University.